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DENVER OWNER PLACES HIMSELF IN THE LIMELIGHT

One gets the idea Patrick "Call me Pat" Bowlen spends most of his waking hours imagining headlines.

He certainly has made enough of them.

In the past two weeks alone, the 45-year-old Bowlen has commanded far more attention than those he pays to throw, run, block, tackle, kick, catch and coach. So far, he has:

Advised gamblers to "take the Broncos and the points" Sunday in Super Bowl XXIV, in which the San Francisco 49ers are 12 1/2 -point favorites to win. The NFL frowns upon any public references to wagering by owners, coaches and players.

Insulted some residents of San Francisco by referring to 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice as a "Chinaman." Bowlen attempted to make a joke with a play on Rice's last name, but a San Francisco group called Chinese for Affirmative Action said the term "Chinaman" was extremely derogatory to the Asian community and demanded an apology.

Insulted some residents of the Super Bowl host city by saying New Orleans wasn't "a very good place for children and families. There's not a lot for kids to do." That is, kids below the legal drinking age of 22.

If the Broncos win Sunday, regardless of the margin, Bowlen will have the one headline that eluded him in two previous Super Bowl appearances since he became the team's majority owner on March 23, 1984.

Otherwise, he will continue to outshine the Broncos' performance on the field with what he says and does off of it.

Since his arrival Sunday, Bowlen has been spotted conducting what can only be presumed is research to support his claim that this, indeed, is a playground for adults. Within days after becoming a father for the fifth time in two marriages, he began romping down Bourbon Street until the wee hours, rolling out of bed late the next day and starting all over again after dark.

"Everybody wants to go out on Bourbon Street for the night or two that they're in town," Bowlen said. "You like to think that you're invisible. But you have a few glasses of wine and then you walk in someplace, and say, 'Oh, geez, I'm not invisible.' "

Bowlen has been about as visible as a sports franchise owner can get this side of George Steinbrenner.

Besides his overgrown fraternity-boy escapades, he is a member of the NFL's powerful finance committee. And he was a leader of the dissident group that blocked the election of Jim Finks as commissioner. (As one NFL executive observed, had Bowlen been part of the original search committee that backed Finks, the popular New Orleans Saints general manager would be commissioner today.)

Bowlen's rise to prominence in the NFL can be traced to the league meetings last spring at Palm Desert, Calif. That was when he presented Buffalo Bills defensive end Bruce Smith, then a conditional free agent, an offer sheet for $7.5 million over five years.

Fifteen minutes before the presentation, Bowlen informed Bills owner Ralph Wilson of his intentions. Bowlen would later describe Wilson's reaction by saying he "turned the color of my shoes," which were bright white.

The Bills, of course, matched the offer and retained Smith. But Bowlen's violation of an unwritten rule that certain star players whose contracts expire aren't to be courted was known to have infuriated Wilson and other NFL owners. Bowlen also was openly criticized by some of his peers for being a hypocrite. The day before the Smith affair, he convinced the rest of the owners to approve the reduction of training-camp rosters to 80 players and other measures aimed at "fiscal responsibility."

"At the time we bid on Bruce Smith, we felt he was the best defensive player in football, and certainly a guy who played a position that we needed very badly," Bowlen said. "If John Elway were out there as a free agent, I'm sure that there would be a number of clubs lining up to bid for his services. I'd expect that. I don't accept the fact that there's any kind of an unwritten rule that you shouldn't do that. I mean, that's what the rules are there for.

"As it turns out, in my mind, I think Buffalo got a hell of a good deal. They didn't pay too much for Bruce. Now, maybe they can say, 'Well, he didn't play this well or he didn't play that well.' But I expect to see more of that (bidding on star players who become conditional free agents)."

Despite what took place at the NFL meetings, Bowlen insists there are no grounds to call him a hypocrite.

"We waste a lot of money on players coming into the league who can't play the game -- draft choices, free agents, whatever," he said. "We pay them some big bonuses. We've been guilty of it in Denver, paying high-round draft choices big bonuses, and then they can't play. And the league has to be very careful how they're spending their money these days, because we don't have a heck of a lot of it, contrary to popular opinion.

"The star players -- the John Elways, the Bruce Smiths, the Dan Marinos -- have earned their spurs. They are the entertainers. They should get paid whatever they can draw for their services. If we're going to be spending our money, that's where we should be spending it."

Bowlen's money is from oil. His father built a vast oil empire in Canada. Bowlen still has a hand in some real estate and oil ventures, but he spends "about 75-80 percent" of his time with the Broncos.

Many NFL owners aren't around their teams that much.

"You've got to keep in mind that it is a sport, and I'm having a lot of fun doing this," Bowlen said. "The biggest disappointments I've had are losing two Super Bowls. Beyond that, the disappointments are not that great.

"But one of the things that I have noticed, as you get further in this sport, the defeats are a hell of a lot harder on you than the wins are good for you. For some reason, you start to take the wins for granted and you feel good and peaceful about them. But you take the losses very hard."

Especially Super Bowl losses.

"It's a lot easier going into a game as a heavy underdog," he said. "People are saying we shouldn't even show up. It's going to be 55-3 at halftime. And I've found that, in this game, there's a lot less pressure on a team in our position than there is on a team in the 49ers' position.

"How I'll feel if we lose, I don't know, because I haven't thought about it. I expect to win this football game. I think we're a good football team, maybe a better football team. But that's one man's opinion."

Some might say Bowlen would be better served if he kept his opinions to himself.

This is the man who compared Cleveland Stadium to a "cow pasture," saying it had the "three worsts. The worst playing field, the worst locker rooms and the worst fans." This is also the man who, while his club experienced a rare bad stretch, said he wanted meaner and tougher players, even if it meant bailing them out of jail on Sundays.

"I don't look at myself as being flamboyant," Bowlen said. "Maybe I say things that other owners wouldn't say, for whatever reason. But I don't consider most of my comments -- some of them are a little poorly timed -- to be flamboyant. They're just the truth."

Nevertheless, he insists he doesn't like his reputation for being outspoken.

"If there's one thing that I could wish away, it would be that," Bowlen said. "It's never the important things (on which he is quoted). It's always the stupid things.

"But you find out very quickly that if you're going to be involved in the day-to-day operation of your football team, the more that you're involved, the more public attention you're going to get. If you're going to be there every day in the locker room, the coaches' building and on the practice field, they're going to write about you.

"You can't walk around with a hat and mask on."

Although that might not be a bad idea for those wee-hour romps down Bourbon Street.

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